Learning to co-parent is a new path that requires adapting what you used to do, to what you now need to do. This article by Jennifer McIntosh, Ph.D offers wisdom to help keep the kids in mind.
Building a secure parenting base after separation
Many people say being a parent is the best but hardest job in the world, and we don’t get proper training for it.
Separation between parents is also hard – to put it mildly – and there’s no training for that either.
There’s no doubt that being a separated parent can be hard, emotional work.
It can be difficult to know what you need and want, and what your children need and want.
A secure base
With the right support, most parents can find a way to build a secure base for their children after separation. That’s good for parents, and vital for their kids.
We hope this booklet helps you do that.
Is separation harmful for kids?
If it is managed well by the adults, separation doesn’t have to be harmful for children in the long run.
Is conflict between parents harmful for kids?
Sometimes. What hurts children and their development the most, short and long term, is ongoing adult conflict that doesn’t get sorted out.
The good news: kids can cope with conflict between parents so long as:
- the conflict is not violent
- the conflict is not frequent
- parents work at sorting it out
- kids understand they are not to blame
- kids are not caught in the middle of it.
In fact, children of all ages can learn good coping skills, provided they are not too stressed by what is happening in the family.
What happens when separating doesn’t stop the conflict?
Some parents can sort out their differences with a separation. For many, conflict grows around the time of separating and continues long after divorce. This is very stressful for parents… and for children.
It’s doubly important to think about what children need in these situations.
What does high conflict look like?
Conflict comes in different shapes and sizes.
Parents in high conflict typically do these sorts of things with each other:
- remain very angry
- distrust each other
- become verbally abusive
- avoid each other unnecessarily
- argue or interfere
- go to court a lot
- threaten, intimidate or try to control their ex-partner
- are aggressive or violent
- have trouble communicating about the children
- criticize each other’s parenting.
That’s hard for anyone to live with, and important to change, because…
Parents’ ongoing conflict costs kids too much…
Research shows the sad truth that conflict between parents that goes on and doesn’t get resolved is very hard on children and teenagers, and can affect the way they develop:
- they lose their ability to trust
- they make poor attachments to their parents
- they don’t believe in themselves
- they get overwhelmed by their feelings
- they show their distress in bad behaviour
- they have trouble making and keeping friends
- they aren’t confident
- they don’t perform as well at school
- they have trouble making healthy adult relationships.
Something to think about
One in four children from separated families suffers from poor mental health. That’s a lot more than “normal”.
Separation doesn’t cause this. Long, bitter, unresolved conflict does.
Children’s energy gets drained by high or frequent conflict between parents, when mums and dads can’t ‘be there’ for them, because their minds are full of tension and anger.
Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to both family conflict and being looked after by overwhelmed parents.
Conflict costs parents a lot too, such as:
- Worry and anger that goes on and on.
- Losing perspective: forgetting what’s important.
- Not feeling like a good parent.
- Money for mediators, counsellors.
- Nerve-racking and expensive legal processes.
- Time lost from work.
- Forgetting there are solutions, not just problems.
You can protect your children from your conflict.
Parents in conflict with their ex-partner need support to sort it out. In the meantime, children can be protected from adults’ tensions when both parents:
- keep the child out of the middle of their arguments
- never ask the child to carry messages to the other parent
- don’t ask the child personal questions about the other parent
- make arrangements that suit the child
- know their child may have different feelings from the ones they have
- try to notice what it’s really like for the child
- give permission for the child to enjoy their other parent
- help the child to have a healthy relationship with their other parent
- notice when the tension is being soaked up by their child
- remember that children can twist themselves into strange shapes inside, in order to cope with conflict between the people they love most.
What’s time got to do with it?
Some parents focus on how much time they will each get with the children.
From your children’s point of view, it’s much more important to work out what kind of support they need from each of you.
What children need when Mum and Dad separate
What children need after their parents separate is exactly what they needed before: a secure emotional base.
What all children need when Mum and Dad separate
Children need a secure base with parents they trust and feel comforted by.
Above all they need:
- a secure base for exploring, growing and developing
- help to solve their problems
- encouragement to learn
- routines that help them feel in control
- firm and loving limits to be safely independent
- a trusted parent when they need to be dependent
- protection from trauma.
Good parents don’t get it right all of the time, but they do try to repair mistakes when they happen.
What babies need when Mum and Dad separate
Babies need all of that, plus a bit extra. Babies need more help to manage their feelings.
They need predictability, and a lot of time with parents who nurture them. They need parents who play with them, listen carefully to their efforts to communicate, and who keep their world small and safe.
If they’ve had a safe and nurturing relationship with both parents, they need to continue to have that. They need visiting schedules that don’t overwhelm them with too much change, or with conflict between their parents. Babies need parents who are tuned into their needs, rather than having to be tuned in to Mum’s or Dad’s feelings.
What teenagers need when Mum and Dad separate
They may be on their way to adulthood, but teenagers still need a secure base with their parents, in order to reach their potential.
It’s the little, day-to-day things that matter. Research shows that the best parenting for teenagers after separation is done by keeping the daily stress in the teenager’s life as low as possible.
This happens when:
- Mum and Dad are ‘there’ on a daily basis to listen and give support. That can be in person or by making sure that your teenager knows how to reach you by phone or email, and knows that you will make every effort to be available when they need you. Those check-in calls are so important: “Just calling to see how things are today”.
- Each house has a daily routine that is predictable, and has consistent rules and expectations. Parents arrive home when they say they will, provide meals on time, and give a good structure to the teenager’s day, that helps them manage their load. This really reduces the daily stress that teenagers can feel.
- Parents are able to keep tabs on their teenager and take a real interest in their life. Without intruding too much, these parents share in their teenager’s interests, know what they need to get on with their activities, know where they are, and how they are spending their time.
- Each parent remembers special days in their teenager’s life, and takes part in them as best they can. That includes the big days like birthdays, and the other moments that are important. The “of course I’ll be there” message or the “good luck” calls before the big match are worth their weight in gold.
- Parents don’t rely on the teenager to give messages to the other parent. This really stresses adolescents, especially when they become the target of Mum’s or Dad’s frustration when a message goes astray, or when they don’t get the answer they wanted. Teenagers who feel caught between their parents are at the highest risk for problems. Parents need to speak directly to each other whenever possible, because even an apparently harmless message can cause stress for the teenager.
- Teenagers feel close to their parents.
- Step-parents have a good relationship with the teenager.
What about teenagers and conflict?
Adolescents are very aware of conflict between Mum and Dad, and, like younger children, they do best when their parents manage that conflict and keep it low. They aren’t as likely to blame themselves for trouble between their parents as little kids are. However, teenagers from high conflict families often leave home earlier than their friends who live in low conflict homes. So the message for parents of teenagers is the same as with all kids: keep your conflict low and keep your teenager out of communication between you and your ex-partner.
This picture tells the story of the circle of security…
Always be bigger, stronger,
wiser, and kind.
Whenever possible follow
my child’s needs.
Whenever necessary take charge.